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Who is the man behind the Wilson name?

Formerly carved in concrete over the front door of Wilson Auditorium are the words Wilson Memorial Hall

Wilson Auditorium's namesake Obediah Jay Wilson

The wall carving that identified Obed J. Wilson and Amanda.

by Deborah Rieselman

For more than 80 years, the Art Deco-influenced building on the corner of Clifton Avenue and Clifton Court clearly announced its name — “Wilson Memorial Hall” — carved into the concrete over the front door. Inside, a large inscription more clearly identified the namesake with the announcement “This library of Obed J. Wilson is the gift of Amanda Landrum Wilson.”

Nevertheless, the man behind the name has largely been a mystery — a name attached to a well-known building without a hint as to who Obed was or why the building was named for him. Since the building has recently been demolished, it seems like meeting Mr. Wilson should happen now or never.

Obediah Jay Wilson was his full name, and he had no direct connection to the University of Cincinnati. He simply lived nearby, at 378 Lafayette Avenue in Clifton, and he and his wife had a fine appreciation for education, both having started out as teachers in Cincinnati.

Around the state of Ohio, he was considered one of its foremost citizens, heralded as an educator, a renowned publisher, a highly successful entrepreneur, a philanthropist and a serious patron of the arts. After his death, his wife, Amanda, left UC a bequest to build an auditorium and name it after her beloved husband.

A portrait an a white-haired Obed Wilson

Obed youngest of 14

Known more simply as “Obed,” Wilson was born in Maine in 1826, the youngest of 14 children and named after his father Rev. Obed, a Methodist Episcopal minister for 40 years. Respected for his intelligence, his charitable nature and his ability to carry an audience with his words, Rev. Obed was instrumental in helping Maine become a state, which then led to a prominent role in state politics.

Regardless of the family’s reputable standing, a minister’s salary could rarely provide funding for education. So when the younger Obed was 20 in 1846, he moved to Cincinnati, where his older brother was already a public-school teacher. With his brother’s help, Obed also became a teacher and started studying law at the same time. In 1852, he was made principal.

That was a memorable year for Wilson as he also took a bride — Amanda Mariah Landrum of Augusta, Ky. Like Obed, she was the child of a minister and was working as a Cincinnati teacher. They married in December 1852.

Although Obed was a highly energetic educator and student, reading books all day and night took such a severe toll on his eyesight that he had to give up both teaching and his law studies in 1853 before he went blind.

Fortunately, he quickly obtained a position as a traveling agent for a Cincinnati schoolbook publisher, which gave his eyes a much-needed rest. During the next few years on the road, he attracted a great deal of business for the company and raised its prestige significantly.

In recognition of his impressive business acumen, the firm took Wilson off the road; promoted him to correspondent, literary critic and referee; and gave him a sizable raise. Soon he was named editor-in-chief of publications. When the company’s owner retired shortly after that, the firm reorganized twice and, in the end, made Wilson a senior partner of Wilson, Hinkle & Co.

Jeopardizing health for success

Business continued to grow at such an extraordinary pace that by the late 1860s, the company had become the largest schoolbook publisher in the world, according to a 1917 biography published by the Ohio American Local History Network (OALHN). “Because of too close application to business, Mr. Wilson's health was again impaired,” the article explains, “and he was advised to seek rest and recreation in a trip abroad.”

With no children of their own, the Wilsons took along one of Amanda’s nieces when they launched their European tour in 1869. Tourist resorts were apparently what Obed needed as his health totally returned.

Unfortunately, their trip was cut short in Rome when his publishing partner died. Obed quickly returned to Cincinnati, where he again “plunged into business with more zeal than ever,” the biography reports. “The next seven years were given to unremitting work.”

In 1877 at the mere age of 51, Wilson decided that he had accumulated enough wealth to withdraw from active business, so he could return to traveling. “For five years, accompanied by his wife, as fond of travel as he, he lived the life of a cosmopolitan,” the article notes. He spent some time in northern and eastern Africa, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor and the principal cities of Europe, “sojourning for months in some of them.”

In 1882, he returned to America determined to settle down, but four years later gave in to the urge to travel around the world with his wife and her two nieces — starting with the Sandwich Islands, then heading through Japan, China, India, Egypt and Great Britain.

Through their travels, they accumulated a seriously remarkable art collection, which they eventually put to philanthropic purposes, donating most of it to the Twin Towers Methodist Home for the Aged in the early 1900s and also donating art pieces to the University of Cincinnati, including a Greek vessel, ca. 475 B.C. (shown at right).

A recognized philanthropist, Wilson is also credited with donating to the Teacher’s Association in a way that made him instrumental in creating the “modern” public educational system in Cincinnati.

Touching tributes

For more than 60 years, the couple thrived until Obed passed away at their stately Clifton homestead on Aug. 31, 1914, the day after his 88th birthday. The Sept. 4 issue of the Cincinnati Enquirer reported:

"Few citizens of Cincinnati have had such earnest and touching tributes paid their memory as were accorded Obed J. Wilson at his funeral yesterday afternoon. Five ministers of the gospel took part, and a remarkably large and sympathetic assemblage was present at the services. A profusion of the rarest flowers exhaled their aroma throughout the beautiful home on Lafayette Avenue.”

Amanda continued her husband’s generosity through the next 12 years. For the university, she endowed a Chair for Ethics and made a bequest for building the auditorium to be named after Obed.

Amanda died in March 1926 and is buried next to her lifelong partner in Spring Grove Cemetery.

 

LINKS

Editor's notes

  • Wrong man: Apparently, some sources have identified UC's benefactor as "Judge Obed Wilson." I can find no indication that he was ever a judge or that "Judge" was part of his name. It could be that his name was confused with a Judge Obed Wilson who lived in Versailles, Ind., in the 1800s.
  • Good idea: Thanks to reader Bin Yuan, A&S '87, for suggesting this story.